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January 21st, 2012
09:25 AM ET

In search of a jobs solution for today

To hear the corporate members of the president’s Jobs Council explain it, the problem is not creating jobs. It is creating qualified workers.

The president assembled his blue ribbon panel of innovators and business leaders this week and streamed the meeting via the White House website. Anyone tuning in to hear corporate leaders tell the president what they were doing to create jobs and opportunity in America instead heard a litany of complaints about the quality of the American workforce.

From Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg: “Every company I know, my own included, we’re desperately trying to hire more people. But is has to be the people who have the technical skills to meet the jobs we need, and it gets harder and harder to find them.”

CEOs lamented America’s “skills gap,” its “math gap,” and the head of the group, GE’s Jeff Immelt, concluded to the President: “Our competitiveness has eroded over the past decades. We have lost ground in metrics ranging from education to infrastructure to export.”

On jobs: “There is no silver bullet,” Immelt concludes. It’s something we have heard before from this panel. (Read my colleague Jennifer Liberto’s story)

Business wants fewer regulations, streamlined government, tax reform and lower corporate taxes. Only taken together with a renewed focus on education and training – “a multitude of (solutions) over a multitude of years” – as Immelt put it – can America get back on track.

But what about American workers today?

First, any viewer of our program, Your Bottom Line, knows that we are passionate here about improving the American K-12 public education system, early childhood development, increased proficiency in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and more affordable and diverse choices for higher education. Week after week we explore the importance of a diverse base of job opportunity in America and how we can recover from the crushing effects of the financial crisis and the subsequent recession and slow recovery. So no one can accuse us of not believing that better education and STEM skills are critical for America’s role in this century and beyond.

But by focusing on the skills and education deficits of America’s workers, is the jobs council punting on the issue of putting America back to work today?

Does the corporate wish list for upgrading the American workforce deflect away from the fact that these same businesses have been at the forefront of developing cheaper labor and growing middle classes around the world, and have less allegiance to the American workforce than ever? That they are sitting on $2.2 trillion in cash that they could well deploy in their factories and research centers here putting people to work?

The fact is, a company’s responsibility is to its shareholders, not to an individual country. (It’s why critics have called this jobs council the “outsourcing” council.)

The conversations in the boardrooms and at cocktail parties among America’s leadership is about expanding H-1B visas to bring in highly skilled workers from abroad, building massive research and development centers in China and India to be closer to those talent pools, and tapping into vast middle classes elsewhere.

It’s not about tapping into the 20+ million unemployed and underemployed in the country today. It just isn’t.

We applaud the focus on innovation and better education on the jobs council. DuPont’s CEO made a passionate appeal for improving education all the way down to toddlers. She said America need to start thinking of K-12 as starting before kindergarten. Bravo!

But here is our question to you: Is the conventional wisdom that only STEM is the future of good-paying work in America distracting from the near-term jobs crisis? Please weigh in below and tell us what you think. We’d love to use your comments on air, too.

Have a great weekend.

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